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Philippines: sacred and profane

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As long term readers will recall, tobacco promotion is so confident and unrestrained in the Philippines that Fortune Tobacco, the local big player, can exploit the allegiances of the country's Catholic majority by linking its products to figures from the Christian bible story, particularly the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus Christ. It is common for Filipinos to place religious images in their homes, cars, shops, and offices, many no doubt produced by commercial interests. However, for the exploitation of religion to sell cigarettes, the latest in a series of promotional calendars produced by Fortune gives even British American Tobacco (BAT), whose Pakistan excesses were featured in our last issue (Tobacco Control2001;10;93–4), a run for its money.

The 2001 calendar produced by Fortune in the Philippines. To see samples of previous calendars go to eTC.

Fortune has been producing religious calendars for over a decade. In 1990, it used a classical representation of Mary holding the infant Jesus, with nine of the cigarette brands made or marketed by the company arranged neatly in the foreground, above the dates. The 1994 calendar (“Our Lady of Cigarettes”, Tobacco Control 1994;3:200) showed a figurine of Mary wearing a gold crown above pure, white robes against a plain dark background, hands held in attitude of prayer, this time with 10 cigarette brands. The following year, 1995, Fortune tried a contemporary depiction of Mary. Once again she is holding baby Jesus, and this time his hand seems to be reaching out towards the cigarettes in Mark, or possibly Champion, two of the nine brands, all open and with cigarettes protruding, that partially obliterate the bottom edge of the painting.

For 1996, Fortune developed the calendar still further, perhaps reflecting a steady growth in sales that the company might have viewed as little short of, well, divine. The 1994 figurine of Mary was recycled, but this time a tasteful background frame was added, a garland of yellow roses, perhaps to counter emerging perceptions of the company's products as being somewhat less than fragrant. The foreground display had almost doubled, to a record 17 brands.

In 1997, Fortune took a somewhat backward step in terms of religious hierarchy, when its calendar featured St Teresa of Avila (curiously, the patron saint of headache sufferers), once again with 17 brands; but this slight demotion was nothing compared to another calendar offered by the company that year, featuring four “pin-ups” at the very opposite end of the sacred-to-secular scale (Tobacco Control1997;6:357–8; the saint was erroneously identified as Mary).

The religious calendar series continued, however, and the Fortune marketing people reverted to the Holy Family with gusto. And if the earlier creations in this genre pushed their luck with religious feelings, this year they went for broke. Casting aside any remaining reticence about the use of holy icons to further cigarette sales, for 2001 they fielded the ultimate Christian double bill—not just the Virgin Mary, but the adult Jesus Christ as well. The roses have turned mauve, formed themselves into the shape of a heart, and become the inner edge of a masking frame for the sacred pair. Looking more like film star lovers than holy mother and son, they solemnly raise their hands in blessing—above 15 of the company's cigarette brands.

Interestingly, many of the brands offer identification potential to satisfy religious and secular preferences alike. There are Hope, Liberty, Evergreen, and Peak, all chiming with spiritual values, while Mark is surely a blatant case of hostage-taking of one of the four Gospel authors. Those who give themselves to more earthly aspirations can choose from More, Fortune, Boss, and Champion, leaving Westpoint, Winter, and Plaza for the undecided. Camel, which was present in the earlier calendars, is prominent by its omission in 2001. Perhaps this is because of changes made by the new owners of the international (non-US) version of the brand, Japan Tobacco; or could it be the subconscious avoidance of some uncomfortable word association by Fortune's directors? As well educated Catholics, they will know that Jesus said it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Better to quit while they're ahead.

All articles written by David Simpson unless otherwise attributed. Ideas and items for News Analysis should be sent to David Simpson at the address given on the inside front cover.

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